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April 27th, 2015:

Exposure to air pollution may damage brains

Long-term exposure to fine particle air pollution, even at low levels, may cause subtle structural changes in the brain that could precede cognitive impairment and hidden brain damage, according to research in the journal Stroke.

Between 1995 and 2005, researchers tracked 943 adults from Boston and throughout New England and New York, who were relatively healthy and free of dementia and stroke. They found a 2 microgram per cubic metre of air increase in PM2.5, a range commonly observed across a metropolitan region, was associated with a 0.32 per cent smaller total cerebral brain volume – similar to about one year of brain ageing – and a 46 per cent higher risk of covert brain infarcts, a type of silent stroke. Fine particle air pollution, or PM2.5, comes from burning wood or coal, car exhaust and other sources.

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To most, Denmark brings to mind popular TV dramas, sweet pastries and Lego. But there is one part of the nation’s identity that those in Borgen (the real-life seat of government, that is) are keen to eradicate. For some decades now, Danish waste management has been dominated by municipal incinerators. Plants were common in the small dormitory towns that popped up in the 1960s, but it was the energy crises of the 1970s that persuaded the Danish government to promote district heating, reducing dependency on oil and increasing supply reliability. This district heating, created by waste- burning plants, now provides around 20 per cent of energy to Danish homes, and up to 98 per cent of households in Copenhagen.

It is perhaps this reliance on incineration that is behind the staggering amount of household waste produced: it’s currently hovering around the 2.5 million tonnes per year mark (as of 2011), after exceeding 3.5 million in 2008. In a nation of 5.7 million inhabitants, that’s around 450 kilogrammes (kg) per person. Indeed, according to Eurostat, Denmark’s municipal waste generation per capita is the highest in Europe, 747kg per person in 2013 (compared to a Europe-wide average of 481kg). Around 80 per cent of this household waste, including high-calorific organic waste, is sent straight to the nearest incinerator (only three per cent is sent to landfill nationwide), with seemingly little appetite or need to develop more efficient processes.

Although the Danish brand of incinerator might not be the ozone clogger that you envision – high filtration and cleaning standards see to that – it was this vicious circle of generating waste for energy that former Environment Minister Ida Auken aimed to cut off when her department introduced the ‘Denmark Without Waste’ plan in November 2013. The plan signals a move away from incineration and towards a more recycling-oriented system.

With the plan comes a relatively bold target: to double household recycling – from a paltry 22 per cent in 2011 to 50 per cent by 2022 (although, strangely, the European Commission’s revised Waste Framework Directive requires this target to be met two years earlier).

Auken admits that in trying to solve a problem by building the country’s network of 26 incinerators in the second half of the 20th century, Denmark created a new one for its future: “I think the true story of Denmark is that we were on the wrong track, basically. We’ve been on the right track in so many other areas, but in this one we were solving a previous problem and trying to find renewable energy – but we could see the plastic streams coming up and up. Calling waste a renewable fuel source is wrong, and it’s becoming more and more wrong.”

The plan’s focus is on getting more out of waste. Measures include separate collection of organic waste for biogas and other biomass uses, higher quality recycling of construction waste, and an increased focus on developing recycling technology. It aims to reduce the amount of waste sent to incinerators from over 2.5 million tonnes in 2011 to just 820,000 tonnes by 2022.

With household waste making up such a large proportion of incineration feedstock, however, the change must start at home. “There’s been a paradigm shift and it’s been important for us to really explain the story”, says Auken. “That’s why we changed from saying we make waste plans to saying we make resource plans. We’ve really tried explaining to the people why we ask them to separate their waste now.

“We’ve focused a lot on resource scarcity and how the prices have come up in the last 15 years more than they went down in the previous hundred. We’re trying to show that there are jobs and new technologies combined with this change.

Denmark without waste
The front cover of Denmark’s new resource plan makes clear the government’s intention to move away from incineration in favour of more recycling

“[Residents are] used to getting paper, glass, batteries and electronics out, but besides that, they would [previously] put everything in the trash, basically. So it has been a big paradigm shift.”

Changing the mindset of the people is just the first step in initiating change, and Auken is confident that Denmark is ready for a new way of operating centred around creating a circular economy. New business models are popping up all over Denmark and are, she says, “very appealing to people”.

But creating a collection system and the infrastructure to put these materials to best use is another issue altogether. Auken’s ministry suggested a focus on more waste streams – for example, better collection and separation of WEEE and higher quality recycling of construction waste – but for the time being municipalities have the freedom to develop their own methods, as long as they’re working towards the government’s targets. “Setting a recycling goal that’s twice as high [as current levels], it was important municipalities didn’t just point to the government and say: ‘They said it.’ They really have to take responsibility, so we gave them the freedom to implement the way they start”, Auken explains.

What happens to the waste once it’s been collected, though? Auken acknowledges that creating waste streams that are valuable enough to create a market is a challenge that requires everyone to chip in. “You need government’s priorities, you need private companies with the technologies, you need private buyers of the recycled materials, you need to bring all these interests together.” But Denmark is ready, and the response from businesses has been positive, according to Auken; already, some municipalities have created biogas plants to treat organic waste, and the government hopes that their success will encourage more to follow suit.

So now that Denmark is seemingly on its way to kicking its incineration habit, how does government ensure that it doesn’t make a similar error and commit to new practices that seem wonderful now but are obsolete or burdensome in a few years? Flexibility, Auken insists, is key: “You can never ensure that you don’t create a new problem when you solve an old one. You need to solve several at a time – that is normally the best way to go around. That, and being a politician in a leadership that is not afraid of changing tools on the way. If we have a goal that is Denmark without waste in 2050, we should not predict the extent of available technologies” – a lesson learned from the past few decades.

Denmark’s waste management landscape is changing enormously, now that government has decided to drastically cut back on incineration. As Auken says: “Until you change the rules, you cannot ask somebody to play by other rules.”

This evolution is already evident. The Ministry of the Environment, now headed by Kirsten Brosbøl after a change of cabinet last February, plans to follow up 2013’s waste plan with ‘Denmark Without Waste II’ this year. The sequel takes a step up the waste hierarchy, addressing the prevention of waste.

Auken is looking forward to a proactive future: “We should try to say this is the goal and make sure that tools at all times are as good as possible and that political regulation is as good as possible to get there, changing things whenever we see problems. That’s my philosophy.”

Fees for controversial green building accreditation scheme set to rise sharply

The Green Building Council is cashing in on its right to accredit environmentally friendly building projects, having announced an increase in registration fees that will take them to double the level of two years ago.

The not-for-profit body is responsible for certifying buildings that have undergone BEAM Plus assessment – governmentrecognised tests developments must undergo if developers are to claim green construction incentives. The assessment itself is carried out by BEAM Society (BSL), another not-for-profit group which developed BEAM Plus.

Critics said the fee rise – for which the council has not offered any explanation – demonstrated the problems of leaving a government-recognised accreditation scheme in the hands of a private organisation that was not subject to public scrutiny.

Council chairman Conrad Wong Tin-cheung said it was granted the right to use the BEAM Plus rating tool to develop related services under an agreement with BSL. BSL was one of four industry organisations that helped set up the council in 2009.

However, a source familiar with the situation said the council had “nothing to do with the development, assessment and administration of the BEAM Plus scheme”, but forced BSL to grant it the right to “sign” the certificates and thus pocket the registration fee.

Registration fees for extra-large, mega and exceptional-scale projects will increase to HK$300,000, HK$400,000 and HK$600,000, respectively, from June – double what they were in June 2013.

The council also sets the assessment fees BSL can claim. Assessment fees for new extra-large and mega-projects will rise by 25 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively, from June, to HK$841,000 and HK$1,237,300.

The fees have proved lucrative for both organisations since the Buildings Department officially recognised BEAM Plus assessment as the accreditation scheme for its incentive programme in April 2011.

The council’s financial statements for 2013 show its registration fee income more than doubled to HK$9.88 million that year, from HK$4.38 million in 2012.

BSL also saw its turnover surge, from HK$7.45 million in 2012 to HK$13.2 million in 2013.

The council says on its website that it reserves the right to adjust both certification and assessment fees, but did not detail the reasons for the latest increase.


[1]”They are running like a private club with board members setting their own game rules and doing as they please without being regulated by the government and being held accountable to the public,” said another source familiar with the situation. “It seems like this small circle of close allies is taking advantage of the government.”

Founded in 1996 by construction and real estate professionals, BSL developed BEAM assessment tools for benchmarking green buildings.

However, insiders say things have become complicated after BSL restructured itself to join hands with three other organisations, including the Construction Industry Council, to establish the Green Building Council in 2009.

The government’s decision to officially recognise BEAM plus accreditation has increased the thirst for power and personal gain of some inside the organisations, a source said.

Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wai urged the government to take steps to plug potential loopholes by either placing both bodies under its scrutiny or overhauling the whole incentive scheme.

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Conflict-of-interest row rocks Hong Kong building assessment body

BEAM Society (BSL), which runs the BEAM Plus assessment scheme, has monopoly to carry out assessments that are required to obtain lucrative concessions Leaked documents have revealed conflict-of-interest allegations involving directors of a not-for-profit organisation with a monopoly on green building assessments that allow developers to claim government incentives worth billions of dollars.

The allegations centre on the BEAM Society (BSL), which runs the BEAM Plus assessment scheme. Since 2011, registering for the BEAM Plus scheme has been a prerequisite for developers wishing to increase the gross floor area of projects by 10 per cent without paying the government any extra premium under a Buildings Department plan to encourage green development.

But many of BSL’s 25 directors are drawn from companies in the construction and property sector, and BSL staff members have alleged that directors approved plans or project submissions in which they had a vested interest.

The case sparked alarm given the public interest involved. One lawmaker was “aghast” that a private organisation with no government oversight was handed such a monopoly.

In a letter dated May 16, 2013, a copy of which was seen by the South China Morning Post, BSL’s secretariat complains of a lack of fairness, transparency and accountability in the operation of the BEAM Plus assessment scheme, and says some directors abused their power.

“Their roles have allowed them to gain enormous power with BSL, ie, sometimes they report to themselves for actions they take and could approve the plans that they themselves propose,” reads the letter to BSL’s board. It is signed by the secretariat’s administrative team, marketing and training team, and technical team.

A source familiar with the situation told the Post some directors were indeed “more equal” than others.

BSL chairman Professor John Ng Cheuk-yee said the board had investigated the complaint but “due to confidentiality of the board’s decision and the involvement of some persons, it would not be appropriate to divulge further information”.

But he confirmed that not all of the follow-up actions recommended by the investigation team, which completed its work in October 2013, had been implemented. Three of the complainants no longer worked for BSL, he added.

Founded in 1996 by construction and real estate professionals, BSL was set up to create the BEAM – Building Environmental Assessment Method – tool.

The organisation underwent a restructure in 2009 when it joined three other professional organisations to set up the Green Building Council. The council is now responsible for certifying that developments are registered and have undergone BEAM assessment by BSL, and sets fees for registration and assessment.

Ng said BSL began the process last year of converting itself into a public body under the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance. It had been advised to do so by the Independent Commission Against Corruption in September 2012. Doing so would require a government bill to pass through the Legislative Council.

But critics say the government should have ensured it had oversight of BSL or the council before the Buildings Department gave the organisations a monopoly on assessments.

“I am totally aghast at the lack of government regulations to oversee both BSL and the council when they have been given this special privilege to manage a scheme that involves exceedingly vast public interest,” Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said. “This is a blatant case of government-business collusion and will undermine public trust in the government’s drive for green buildings.”

The Buildings Department took a month to respond to requests for comment, then said only that it was not “involved in the management and operation of the [Green Buildings Council], BSL or the BEAM Plus assessment that they administer”.

The BEAM Plus tests assess a project in several areas including energy use, site ventilation, indoor air quality, water consumption and waste management. Projects are given a grade on a five-point scale, but even those given the lowest grade, unclassified, are eligible for the gross floor area incentives – developers need only publish the results of the assessment in their brochures.

Ng insisted some of the allegations were unfounded, including claims of inconsistency in assessments and of undue influence by some directors on the secretariat staff.

The green requirement was introduced as part of a drive to halt widespread misuse of a scheme that allowed developers to increase gross floor area by adding extra amenities to their developments. Previously, the amount of extra gross floor area developers could claim for amenities and green features had not been capped.

From April 2011 to December 31 last year, a total of 260 new projects had been granted gross floor area concessions, Buildings Department figures show.

The Green Building Council has also been accused of pushing up the price of BEAM Plus certification – which critics again said reflected lax oversight.

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